BWW Reviews: Forum Theatre's Quirky, Thought-Provoking HOLLY DOWN IN HEAVEN

By: Oct. 07, 2012

Forum Theatre tackles some complicated social issues once again with its world premiere of Kara Lee Corthron's Holly Down in Heaven.  What could have been yet another retread of the story of a smart 15-year old getting pregnant - something we have seen time and time again in 'Lifetime' movies - , is instead a quirky, compelling examination of familial bonds, faith, and reason.  Though not without problems, this new play shows considerable promise.  Under the direction of Forum's own Michael Dove, the ensemble cast serves the realistic and enchanted elements of the script equally well.  However, the show belongs to Maya Jackson who gives a revelatory performance as pregnant teen Holly and…a Carol Channing puppet voiced by Vanessa Strickland.

The storyline is deceptively simple.  Holly is a very smart biracial kid- the kind who is in gifted and talented classes at school and thrives on reason and rationality.  A sexual encounter with her deviant teen neighbor Yager (Parker Drown), who isn't exactly the kind of boy you want to bring home to your father, leaves her pregnant.  She retreats to her basement after attending a church camp where she finds Jesus and seeks solace in her situation by communicating with her extensive multi-ethnic doll collection, some of which speak back (including, of all things, a Carol Channing puppet).  Although her clueless and unreligious single father (KenYatta Rogers) wants her to get an abortion she is adamant that she'll have the child and that everything will work out due to her faith in her newfound God, His love for her and His grace, and her decision to pay for her transgression.  In the end, Holly does not get the happy ending she is seeking, but she does learn to reconcile faith and reason and makes a friend in her tutor Mia (Dawn Thomas).   

Playwright Kara Lee Corthron turns stereotypes on their heads with this play.  Here, Christian teen Holly is not a product of her environment.  Her views on God and sin aren't the result of her upbringing.  She isn't the kind of kid you'd expect to engage with the neighborhood troublemaker or the kid who would be changed by an Evangelical church camp.  However, she's also not the kid you'd expect to socialize and interact with inanimate objects - even if one embodies former United Nations Secretary General Koffi Annan.  She thrives on thought and reason.  Corthron fundamentally questions tightly held notions of faith and rationality and considers who is most prone to focus on either of those things and how they can co-exist.  Although her questions are interesting, her script is overly long and repetitive.  There are only so many times that Holly can talk to her dolls and those dolls say things that make her question or not question her beliefs.  When the entire play takes place in one location (in Holly's basement), the repetitive conversations and situations can become tedious to say the least. 

Nonetheless, Maya Jackson's performance pretty much makes you forget about the play being overly long.  She perfects the bratty 15-year old who thinks she is smarter than everyone else, but at the same time she brings charm, innocence, and naivety to the role.  It's a careful balance, but she makes it work from the first scene of the play to the last.  Her self-aware portrayal of the teen is clearly centered on a deep understanding of Holly's intellectual and experiential journey as she carries her babies (yes, twins) for nine months.  

The other members of the cast also have shining moments.  KenYatta Rogers is slightly cartoonish at times as Holly's clueless dad although this may be a directorial decision. That said, his excellent chemistry with Maya is believable and endearing.  He exudes fatherly love and more than capably captures the agony that comes with doing what's best for your child at the end of the play.  Drown's avoids being too 'over the top' as he takes on the character of Holly's young neighbor.  He's able to naturally portray a kid who is troubled yet ultimately sweet.   Thomas gives an initially stiff and stilted performance as Holly's tutor Mia, but she ultimately settles into the role in the second half of the play. She embodies a young girl who is clearly over her head and slightly awkward, but one who also, in the end wants to do what's good.

Luke Cieslewicz, KyoSin, and Vanessa Strickland give voice to Holly's friends in the basement- her dolls and her puppet that looks like Carol Channing.  This puppet (Dr. McNuthin) gives Holly the adult guidance she desperately is seeking and Vanessa Strickland excels with bringing it to life.  Her comedic moments and vocal inflections are priceless.   Without someone as strong as Strickland in the role, the puppet could have been too much of a one-note joke, but Strickland made it work. Really work. 

Steven T. Royal's scenic design sets the tone for this quirky play.  His basement setting is both creepy and enchanted. Debra Crerie and Kay Rzasa's properties designs, including many, many dolls of all types, further add to establishing Holly's world and general state of being.  Thomas Sowers' sound designs and compositions are slightly repetitive (especially between scenes and before the show), but they capture Holly's innocence and the eerie world in which she lives.  Denise Umland has done a commendable job, in particular, in capturing Holly's youth and oddity in her costumes.  Brittany Diliberto's lighting design is appropriately dark for a basement setting.  The lighting is used in this play to (in part) focus the audience's attention on the puppets and dolls when they are in speaking mode.   There were portions of the stage - particularly the area in which the American Girl, Barbie, and Asian dolls reside- where the lighting did not quite allow me to see the dolls as they were speaking.  This may have been a result of my particular seat choice, issues in calling the show/light board operation, or another technical issue in my performance, but it was noticeable.

Minor quibbles aside, Forum Theatre has opened its season strong with this play. I hope Michael Dove keeps on this path of premiering new plays that raise important questions.  It's needed. 

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.

Holly Down in Heaven plays through October 20, 2012 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring- 8641 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD.  For tickets, call the Round House Theatre box office at 240-644-1100 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: Ryan Maxwell


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